Postcard from Paris: An ancient church restored

Churchgoers worship inside the restored interior of the Church of Saint Germain des Prés in Paris, France. | Courtesy of the American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés Church

One of the landmarks in the upscale Saint Germain des Prés neighborhood on the Left Bank of the River Seine is the eponymous church with its Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

The blend of architectural styles is a hint that the Church of Saint Germain des Prés is old — as in really, really old. In fact, the former abbey is said to be the oldest site of religious worship in Paris.

Founded by King Childebert in 543 and later dedicated to St. Germain, a bishop of Paris in the sixth century, the present-day church mostly dates to a rebuilding in the early 11th century before the Great Schism that resulted in the split between Rome and Constantinople.

Of course, changes over the ensuing centuries did update what you see today. This includes the 12th-century choir at the east end, which was done in the then-modern style of Gothic. Another huge change came during the tumult of the French Revolution when the abbey was dissolved with the edifice expropriated for secular use. Christian worship returned to the church in 1803, and restoration was carried out later in the 19th century. By 1862, it was listed as a national historical monument.

A $7.5 million restoration was launched in 2012 to preserve the grandeur of Saint Germain des Prés, which by then was in desperate need of repair after centuries of use.

With most of the restoration work finished, the U.S.-based American Friends for the Preservation of Saint Germain des Prés Church continues to raise money to cover outstanding expenses and the launch of a fifth and final phase of restoration.

The monument to John Casimir sits inside the Church of Saint Germain des Prés in Paris, France. | Dennis Lennox

One of my favorite treasures within the church is a monument in the north transept to John Casimir (1609-1672), sometime prelate in the church of Rome, king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania. Originally a tomb for his heart, the heart was reportedly destroyed during violence in revolutionary France.

Casimir, appointed a cardinal under Pope Innocent X, was elected to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth throne in 1648 following the death of his half-brother.

After a disastrous reign — he fought separate wars against the Ottomans, Russians and Swedes, among others — Casimir renounced the throne in 1688. A year later, the pious ex-king was in Paris, where he lived under holy orders and served as abbot of the abbey.

The monument is notable for its marble statue depicting the king offering his crown and scepter to God. Attributed to the sculptors Gaspard Marsy and Balthazard Marsy, it is reported to be the brothers’ last joint work.

If you go

The Church of Saint Germain des Prés is open Tuesday to Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Monday and Sunday, the church opens at 9:30 a.m. There is no charge for admission.

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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